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Power to the people: devolution explained

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The host of the session, Alastair Noble from the Cabinet Office’s governance and devolution team, began with a picture quiz. Everyone correctly identified Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland’s First Minister. There was less recognition of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness as First and Deputy First Minister, respectively for Northern Ireland. The faces of other ministers and senior civil servants involved in the Welsh Assembly Government, the Scotland Office and the Northern Ireland Office drew blank looks from the audience. It was already clear that the session had identified a need to increase the awareness and knowledge of devolution among civil servants in our region.

Alastair Noble
Alastair Noble

Proposed devolution to the English regions is a hot topic at the moment. As we were in Manchester, many in the room interested in the powers that have been transferred to Greater Manchester - so-called “Devo Manc” - but Alastair explained that was a separate form of devolution with powers devolved to a different level, so it wouldn’t be covered in the day’s session.

The topic for the day was the transfer of powers to the nations of the United Kingdom that began in 1998 with the creation of the Scottish government at Holyrood, the Welsh Assembly, in Cardiff and the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. But why should a civil servant who doesn’t work in a devolved government be informed?

All of us who work in government, whether it’s for one of the devolved administrations or the UK government in London, ultimately work for our citizens, wherever they live. It’s therefore important for every civil servant to know how their work affects, and is affected by, devolution.

How might your work be involved? If you’re in a policy area, for example, you could be involved in developing policies that might have an effect on England only, but equally they could have repercussions across Great Britain or the UK as a whole. Similarly, operational decisions such as office closures might affect a devolved nation, as might new legislation or changes to social security. As a result you might need to work with colleagues in devolved administrations to ensure changes are delivered effectively and efficiently. This could give you the opportunity to learn from different approaches and to share best practice, so good communications and relationship-building are vital to ensure we can better serve our citizens, wherever in the UK they might be found.

Each of the 3 devolved legislatures has its own executive, as well as departments that liaise with the UK government. There are different levels of devolution: for example, Scotland and Northern Ireland have most powers devolved, with a few reserved by Westminster.

However, Wales has fewer powers, with more centrally retained. Reserved powers include the constitution, international relations, defence and broadcasting, among others.

Janine Clitheroe
Janine Clitheroe

There have been great changes in the governance of our islands since the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland in 1707. The devolved structures of the UK are changing and are likely to carry-on doing so. Civil servants need to know how they fit into the bigger picture so they can continue to deliver improved services to citizens. The discovery session pilot was an informative first step on that journey and should prove instructive if it is fully rolled-out.

‘The session was really informative. Devolution was something that I’d never really thought about before, and it opened my eyes. It was worthwhile, and it explained how it might impact on my idea, and who to contact for more information.’

Janine Clitheroe, Civil Service Local

If you want to know more about devolution in the meantime, there is training available on the Civil Service Learning portal. You can also get in touch with your departmental devolution contact, or the Cabinet Office’s government and devolution team, who will be out and about at the upcoming Civil Service Live events.

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